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Iran between east and west.

The clank of sabers rattling has been in Iranian ears ever since President Bush nominated Iran for charter membership in the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union Address. Barely five months had elapsed since 9/11, but already his administration had identified a series of enemies for its War on Terror. That there may have been no tangible links between Iraq, Iran or North Korea and al-Qaeda, the actual perpetrator of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, did not prevent the Axis of Evil rhetoric, with its echo of the real Axis of the Second World War, from making the newly erupted worldwide struggle sound like real war.

Since that time, every January has produced rumors, leaks and veiled threats-that have led tealeaf readers to predict an attack on Iran by June. And every June has come and gone without a shot being fired. This does not mean, of course, that the United States, or Israel, will never attack. However, it does suggest that there are obstacles in the way. Though many of these obstacles have been well described by expert observers, there is one that normally escapes notice. It is the historical pattern of Iran's relationship to its eastern, as opposed to its western, neighbors.

Israelis are understandably appalled by President Ahmadinejad's belittling of the Holocaust and denial of their right to a Jewish state in the Middle East. Neighboring Sunni Arab governments, all former enemies of Israel, express horror at the thought of Shia political and military might stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. Hawkish Americans, alarmed by the prospect of nuclear weapons ending up in Iranian hands, have resurrected the idea, out of favor ever since the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, of attacking first and asking questions about whether the threat really existed later.

The historical pattern that is reasserting itself here is a western propensity, going back to Herodotus and Aeschylus, to fantasize Iran as a threatening force of cosmic dimension. At the same time, there seems to be virtually no interest among the Israeli, Sunni and American hand-wringers in looking at Iran's geostrategic situation the way repeated historical crises have forced Iranian political thinkers to do.

Iran's destiny always lies to the east, not the west. Lowland Iraq may be a tempting morsel for Iranian strongmen, but Central Asia, Afghanistan and the lands beyond embody promises and perils--both yesterday and tomorrow--that exceed in importance anything to be found on Iran's western front.


In 1996, the first railroad train ever to cross the frontier between Iran and Turkmenistan crawled to the center of the border-marking bridge over the meager Tedzhen River and stopped to give children in ornate costumes an opportunity to present flowers to the government leaders in the first car. The mid-May mood of the international visitors and news reporters inside the commoners' cars was buoyant and festive. Unarmed Iranian soldiers stationed every few feet along the bridge saluted the train's passing, though the double row of razor-wire topped fences separated by footprint-revealing plowed land lent the actual entry into Turkmenistan an ominous, Mission Impossible air.

Lunch at the terminus on the Turkmen side had been sitting out for too long in hot tents to be greeted by the train's passengers with anything but concealed alarm. Fortunately for the still hungry audience, the Turkmen speeches took but a small fraction of the time that had been devoted to oratory during the morning under a vast tent pavilion outside the Iranian town of Sarakhs. This was as it should have been, since the $171 million spent on completing the Iran-Turkmenistan rail link had been entirely put up by the shrine of Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad. And it was the Iranians who had come up with the idea of grandly celebrating the "Reopening of the Silk Road."

The 128-word Reuters dispatch that chronicled the event stated that officials from fifty nations were present. But there were none from the United States. Other than Harvard Central Asian specialist John Schoeberlein-Engel and me, both invitees of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no Americans were present. On the official program, the two of us were listed as "representatives of international organizations," to wit, our respective universities.

This grandiose celebratory event went almost entirely unnoticed in the United States. A handful of American world travelers might have envisioned booking a railway excursion from Xian, China, through Turkmenistan and Iran, to Istanbul, Turkey, as can be done today for less than $4,000. But American governmental concerns with Iran in 1996 focused on passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, a draconian Congressional declaration of American enmity toward Iran that preceded by six years President Bush's "axis of evil" pronouncement.

When the Central Command of the U.S. Army was formed in 1983, Iran's potential connections with China were not even on the horizon. The prime worry was about the threat of a Soviet move on the Persian Gulf oil fields across a revolutionary and unstable Iran. I recall receiving a telephone call from the Central Command's chief historian asking whether I could supply an analysis of all invasions of Iran from the north throughout history: routes taken, force levels, logistics problems, major battles, strategic outcomes, the whole works. He wanted it all--and was willing to wait for maybe a day to get it.

Once the Soviet Union fell, Iran's northern borders became peaceful, as they remain to this day. Accordingly, the American fear of Soviet tanks crossing Iran to get to the Arabian oilfields shifted rapidly to a concern about Iran itself threatening to export its revolution to the Persian Gulf oil states and to the Arab world at large. Possible Iranian threats to the new post-Soviet states to the east and west of the Caspian Sea were seldom mentioned, even though this region too contained vast reserves of oil and natural gas. With the United States having but one major study center dedicated to Central Asia (Indiana University), few Americans were equipped to appraise Iran's possible relations with its new northern neighbors. Indeed, what exactly was Central Asia? Should Afghanistan be lumped with the former Soviet republics in the vaguely defined region? Should Pakistan? Was Central Asia the responsibility of Middle East scholars? South Asian scholars? Soviet scholars? Confusion was rife.

These questions took on urgency as Caspian oil reserves grew in importance. Pipelines would be needed to exploit these resources as they came on line. The United States strongly opposed the easiest pipeline routes because they passed through Iran. In Afghanistan, however, the Taliban government, which by 1996 had taken control of much of the country, had not yet acquired its reputation as the worst conceivable Islamic regime. Might it not somehow, even at this late date, be turned into an asset for the United States? Unocal, an American pipeline company, thought it might and began negotiating with the Taliban for transit rights from Central Asian oil and gas fields to Pakistan. Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, who became the American ambassador to Afghanistan after the post-9/11 overthrow of the Taliban regime, contributed risk analyses to the Unocal effort. During the Muiahedeen struggle against the Soviets, he had advocated giving American money and weapons to Muslim militant groups professing ideologies that were in some cases much more rigid and intolerant than that of the government of Iran's Islamic Republic. To be sure, the Taliban seemed to be even more benighted than those groups of "freedom fighters," but being anti-Iranian, or at least anti-Shia, they were perhaps not irredeemable.

Before the Taliban had begun their rise, Dr. Khalilzad, a former colleague on the Columbia faculty, had accompanied a Muiahedeen delegation led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most religiously militant of the resistance leaders, on a Columbia campus visit. I found the opportunity to ask him whether there was not a contradiction between American vilification of Iran as a radical theocracy and American support for the even more radical Mr. Hekmatyar. He acknowledged the obvious policy contradiction. I asked further whether a Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan would not eventually necessitate political abandonment of the resulting Afghan government by the United States. His reply, essentially, was, "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

So 1996 saw the United States legislating severe economic sanctions against Iran, a country that was fairly distant from the radical end of the spectrum of Islamic politics while the American oil industry was trying to make a deal with an Afghan government next door that would soon define that radical extreme.

American ignorance, confusion and policy contradiction contrasted with Iranian expansiveness at the prospect of resuming relations with the trans-Caucasian republics west of the Caspian Sea and the Central Asian lands to the east, all regions that had been sealed off during the Soviet period. The reopening of the Silk Road was just one of many peaceful Iranian overtures to its northern and eastern neighbors. In Afghanistan, Iran was not so pacific. The militant anti-Shia ideology of the Taliban made military support for the remaining opposition force, which came to be called the Northern Alliance, a high Iranian priority. In the wake of 9/11, therefore, when the United States also threw its support behind the Northern Alliance, and relied on its experienced fighters to bear the brunt of the effort to topple the Taliban government, Iran and the United States became de facto allies. Nevertheless, whatever transpired in the talks about Afghanistan that American and Iranian representatives are acknowledged to have held, nothing diminished the deep American suspicion of Iran or laid a basis for resuming broader contacts.


Though it is commonplace in any country for domestic appraisals of self-interest to differ from the interests attributed to the country by neighbors, the pattern of today's misperceptions and confusion reflects a recurrent motif in Iran's history of relations with neighbors to the west and to the east. This motif consists of countries to the west attributing to Iran a deep and abiding concern with their affairs and a willingness, or even eagerness, to intervene in them. Again and again, Iran is configured as a mortal threat to its western neighbors. This threatening image is typically paired with only the sketchiest understanding of Iran's interests vis-a-vis its eastern neighbors or adversaries. Yet time and again, historical developments have shown that Iran's vital interests depend more on relations with the east than with the west, relations that are as deeply embedded in Iranian consciousness as ignorance of them is in the west. The classic expression of this mismatch in perceptions lies in Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.
 The interest of the world's history hung trembling in the balance.
 Oriental despotism, a world united under one lord and sovereign, on
 the one side, and separate states, insignificant in extent and
 resources, but animated by free individuality, on the other side,
 stood front to front in array of battle. Never in history has the
 superiority of spiritual power over material bulk, and that of no
 contemptible amount, been made so gloriously manifest. (1)

Victor Davis Hanson chose this quotation from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Philosophy of History to begin a recent essay devoted to the proposition that the entire history of "the West," perhaps even the very existence of "the West," hinged on the Battle of Salamis in which the Athenian fleet defeated the Persian fleet. (2) After noting that Hegel was "often apocalyptic," Hanson proceeds to accept his judgment completely, though phrasing it in duller prose: "Had the Greeks not won the Persian Wars, Hellenic civilization would have been absorbed by the Persians and western culture in turn would have been aborted in its infancy or at least so radically altered as to be nearly unrecognizable." (3) Why? Because the Greeks would have become slaves:
 Greece was in some sense a slave society ... yet even the Hellenic
 approach to servitude was qualitatively different from that of the
 Persians. In theory all Persians were slaves of the Achaemenid
 king--not merely peasants and serfs but individual nobles, satraps,
 and aristocrats as well. Euripides rightly said of the
 "barbarians"--most likely he meant in this context Egyptians that
 "all are slaves but one" (Helen 276). And while slavery, ancient and
 modern, is a reprehensible institution, at least in Greece it
 coexisted alongside real freedom, and the morality of the
 institutions was the subject of a lively debate among philosophers
 and sophists. (4)

Leaving aside the fact that Euripides' allegation of universal slavery applied to the subjects of the Pharaoh rather than of the Persian King of Kings--"barbarians," after all, are surely all the same--and further ignoring the fact that after their absorption into the Roman Empire, enslaved Greeks tutored their new masters in their Hellenic philosophy, morality and literature, the great problem with Hanson's historical reconstruction is that he gives greater credence to Greek propaganda than to Iranian reality:
 Under Persian control, eastern Greek traders, artists, and
 philosophers were only free to the degree that they did not
 circumvent imperial control; for financial support they often looked
 for patronage at the imperial court in Sardis where art served
 rather than critiqued authority But perhaps the worst element of
 Persian rule in Ionia in Greek eyes was its proclivity to empower
 local aristocrats and tyrants to control and tax their own people--a
 policy the once-free Ionians resisted bitterly and considered
 contrary to the egalitarian traditions of the early broad-based
 timocracies of the city-states, in which all property-owning
 citizens born to two-citizen parents [sic] were in theory equal
 and in charge of their own local governments. (5)

In contributing to a volume devoted to counterfactual essays showing how Europe's rise to become, in the authors' views, the world's greatest culture might have been derailed at certain crucial junctures, Hanson buys into 2,500 years of gratuitous ideological mud-slinging, as if his freedom-loving, tyranny-hating Athenian heroes never perpetrated the mass killings and enslavements so eloquently described by Thucydides. He follows in this a long series of western thinkers who saw the world in terms of a titanic struggle between various rulers of Iran and a succession of kingdoms lying to its west the Seleucids versus the Parthians, the Romans versus the Parthians, the Byzantines versus the Sasanids, the Byzantines versus the Muslim Caliphate, the Crusaders versus the Turks, the Ottomans versus the Safavids--each of them presented as an epic struggle in which profound consequences would surely have resulted from a final victory by either side.

From an Iranian point of view, however, these struggles seem not to loom very large. To be sure, Iranian dynasts were not above dramatizing a signal victory against a western adversary such as Rome by carving on a cliff face an image of a Roman emperor bending his knee to a grandly mounted shah. But the greatest of all monuments to Iranian historical memory, the epic 10th century CE poem by Ferdowsi known as the Shahnameh, or "Book of Kings," pays almost no attention to this putative east-west struggle. It may be understandable that the poet would pass over Iranian defeats, like Marathon and Salamis, but he equally passes over the Parthian victory at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, in which the legions of the Roman general Crassus were decimated, and the equally stunning Roman defeat in 260 CE when the Sasanid ruler Shapur I captured the emperor Valerian.

The only memorable western ruler to make the cut for inclusion as a major figure in the national epic is Alexander the Great, who defeated Darius III in 330 BCE and destroyed the Achaemenid Empire. Yet even here, the Iranian version of the story empties Alexander's conquests of cosmic east-west significance. The Alexander of the Shahnameh is the son of an Iranian shah, not the carrier of Greek genius and Hegelian "free individuality" into the barbaric wilds of Asia.

If the Iran-versus-the-West theme finds minimal reinforcement in Ferdowsi's epic, the same cannot be said of Iran-versus-the-East. The titanic struggle that underlies the most famous episodes is that between the lineage of Iran and the lineage of Turan, two of the three brothers from whom all the world's legitimate monarchs were descended. While the third brother, Sam, was the progenitor of the kings who ruled to west of Iran, these individuals are seldom spoken of in the epic. Iran and Turan, however, are great multigenerational adversaries, the former representing the center of the known world and its eastward extension into southern Afghanistan, the domain of Rostam, the greatest of Iran's heroes and the most loyal ally of its kings, and the latter made up of the kings of Central Asia. By Ferdowsi's day, the newly rising powers in Central Asia spoke Turkish instead of Persian, so the similarity in sound between Turk and Turan encouraged later generations to interpret Iran's grand historical narrative as a struggle between Iranians and Turks. But Ferdowsi's sources long predated the migration of the Turks to Iran's Central Asian frontier. They embodied a sense of peril coming from the northeast that goes back to the earliest stages of Iranian history.

The Greeks who were so certain that Persians lived in slavery and abhorred freedom knew little about these epic roots in the east or about the origins of Iran's Zoroastrian religion in Afghanistan. The Greek historians who noted the death of Cyrus the Great in battle against the Massagetae ("Great Geats") gave conflicting reports about where--probably Uzbekistan--the fighting took place, and they seem similarly confused about the geography of Darius I's campaign against the nomadic Scythians. For the Iranians, however, strategic vulnerability to the north and the east was a constant worry. It was not yet realized that by the beginning of the Common Era the east would also have become Iran's greatest source of wealth and opportunity.


The explanation for the divergence between the Iranian geostrategic reality, in which relations with peoples to the east played a central role, and the self-centered western constructions of Iran's historical role as a threat to western freedom lies in the geography of Iran's highlands and Mesopotamia's lowlands. Lord Byron caught the flavor of this geography in his famous lines from "The Destruction of Sennacherib":
 The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
 And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
 And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
 When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee. (6)

Lowland Mesopotamia, which we think of today as those parts of Iraq not populated by Kurds, has an age-old history of looking apprehensively at the peoples living in the lofty Zagros Mountains that separate the highlands of Iran and of Kurdistan from the flat plain of the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley. A thousand years before the Medes and Persians came from the east and settled in those mountains, the Kassites exercised power over the plains-dwellers from about 1595 to 1155 BCE. Farther to the north in Kurdistan, the Assyrian mountain peoples acquired hegemony over lowlanders to the west and the south. Sennacherib was just one of a sizable number of Assyrian conqueror-kings.

The opposite pattern in which Mesopotamia achieves dominance over the Zagros Mountain region and further eastward onto the highland plateau of central Iran is comparatively rare. The Assyrians did make occasional forays into northwestern Iran, focusing on what is now Iranian Kurdistan. But otherwise, the flow of power from lowland Mesopotamia into highland Iran occurred only twice. In each case, the military force that made conquest possible came from beyond Mesopotamia. The first instance, the conquest of Alexander and his Macedonian army, has already been mentioned. The second was the Arab invasion of the 7th century CE. In neither case did the tough soldiers who carried the campaigns forward include a significant number of Mesopotamian lowland farmers. In both cases, however, the conquerors left garrisons behind to protect their strategic gains. The result was the radiation of first Hellenistic and later Islamic culture as far east as Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Geostrategically, the Zagros Mountains protect Iran from invasion from the west while at the same time threatening Mesopotamia with sudden onrushes of hardy and hungry mountaineers. The Elburz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Iran's north have served as a similar barrier to external invasion, though, from time to time, a northern aggressor--the I(hazars from the mouth of the Volga in the 8th century CE and the Georgians under Queen Tamara in the 12th century, for example--has been able to effect at least a limited penetration. However, the piedmont and desert regions that make up Iran's central plateau are not so lush or productive as to keep the succession peoples who have lived there from coveting the irrigated farmlands and burgeoning cities of lower Mesopotamia/Iraq. The Achaemenids situated their administrative center in lower Mesopotamia, as did the Parthians and Sasanids who followed them.

Iranian culture, on the other hand, like Kassite culture in earlier times, had only limited impact on the western holdings of these dynasties. The rulers profited from trade along the Tigris and Euphrates and through the Persian Gulf, and they doubtless enjoyed the warm weather when it was frigid up on the plateau. But none of the succession of Persian languages spoken by these rulers gained popularity with the people of lower Mesopotamia, and the Zoroastrian religion also proved unpopular. Altogether, the major pre-Islamic Iranian dynasties ruled Mesopotamia for some eleven centuries without greatly altering the culture of the people living there--this in contrast to the strong cultural influences that flowed in the other direction after the conquests in the other direction by Alexander the Great and the early Arab caliphs.

If one were to attempt to encapsulate this particular aspect of Mesopotamian history, one might suggest the following rule: When Mesopotamia forms the center of a state like Babylon or Assyria that does not also rule over the highlands to the east, the most common routes of territorial ambition lead westward or northwestward toward the Mediterranean Sea and Anatolia (modern Turkey). This is partly in line with Semitic linguistic affinities of the peoples of west of the Zagros and south of Anatolia.

On the other hand, when a state deriving its military strength from the Iranian highlands chooses to center its administration in Mesopotamia, the tendency to push westward is much less intense. This does not mean that it never happens. The early Achaemenid campaigns against Egypt, Phoenicia, Ionia (Mediterranean coast of Turkey) and Greece proper provide evidence to the contrary But the Parthians and the Sasanids concentrated more on defending against western attacks than on launching far-reaching campaigns aimed at incorporating the lands of the Mediterranean into their domains.

In other words, despite the conventional historical figuration of Iran as a threat to the west ever since the battles of Marathon and Salamis, Iran has seldom lived up to the role that western historians have cast it in. The reason for this, to return to the theme with which we began, is the higher priority given by states based on the Iranian plateau to both dangers and opportunities lying farther to the east.


Around 1500 BCE, when the ancestors of the Medes and Persians moved into the Iranian plateau and the surrounding mountains from the region of Turkmenistan (or some of them perhaps from the Caucasus region), the land they settled in was suitable for growing grain, fruits and nuts and vegetables, but it had water problems. The rainy season coincided with the cold winter and the dry season with the torrid summer. Moreover, rivers were few, and most of them shrank to a trickle after a brief period of flood from spring snowmelt. Unlike Mesopotamia or Egypt, or the smaller river valleys of the Levant region and western Anatolia, Iran's plateau was not suitable for intensive agriculture based on irrigation canals. Not only was Mesopotamia better supplied by the Tigris and Euphrates, but so were certain regions to the east and northeast where rivers draining the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan--the Helmand, the Hari Rud, the Tedzhen, the Murghab, the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya). Thus, it is not surprising that urban societies flourished earlier in these neighboring regions than in Iran proper.

Though Iran had mineral resources aplenty, its society was mainly agricultural, focusing on grain-growing villages owned and exploited by aristocratic families of mounted warriors. To the northeast, however, where river irrigation fostered more urban development, the desert regions that separated one river valley from another supported many groups of pastoral nomads speaking languages closely related to those on the plateau. These tribes were given to raiding and cattle rustling and made for a fluid and insecure situation. Iranian states that emerged in the west, modeling themselves in substantial measure on Assyria and other states in Mesopotamia, had a hard time subduing and policing the tribes on their eastern frontier. Rather than withdrawing from that frontier, however, as the Seleucid successor state to Alexander the Great's empire did, the kings of the west campaigned regularly in the east and recruited the nomadic warriors they found there as auxiliaries for their armies.

The striking difference between the Achaemenid Empire that extended its reach to the Mediterranean and coveted the Greek mainland and the Iranian dynasties that succeeded it, the Parthians and the Sasanids, was the spectacular growth under Parthian aegis of a valuable transit trade between Central Asia and Mesopotamia. Known historically as the Silk Road, this route served for 1,700 years (ca. 200 BCE to ca. 1500 CE) as an immensely important conduit for the exchange of commodities, ideas, religions, art forms and just about everything else between Mesopotamia, China, India and points in between. Thus the post-Achaemenid Iranian rulers did not have to look westward for wealthy lands to dominate. If they could manage the caravan trade across Asia effectively, they could gain immense wealth without warfare by exchanging silk and other eastern commodities for Roman coins.

Imperial fortunes became increasingly tied to the transit trade across northern Iran, but this trade was vulnerable to rural insecurity, whether from Central Asian tribes or more local Iranian marauders. This led to strong rulers building small (2,000-5,000 in population), walled and garrisoned cities at strategic points and embarking on punitive expeditions against the nomads and some of the trading principalities--Mary, Bukhara, Samarqand--based on the riverine oases of Central Asia. Weak shahs, however, lived in constant fear of raids across the wide open frontiers bordering Central Asia and Afghanistan and struggled with only occasional success to impose their will on nominally subordinate territorial barons who held sway over vast expanses of piedmont and plateau land in Iran proper.

These fears of invasion and potentials for enrichment were Iran's alone. No one who ruled Mesopotamia alone could easily understand them. Iranian potentates, after all, had no desire to publicize or share the lucrative Silk Road trade. However skilled in business the Greek and Phoenician seafarers may have become, they were never welcomed into Iran. The Parthian and Sasanid regimes restricted trade destined for Mediterranean entrepots to carefully controlled exchange points along the Euphrates River.


The Islamic period saw variations on the pattern, but not fundamental change. After the initial Arab conquest, no later effort to occupy Iran from Iraq was successful. Going the other direction, however, armies from Iran conquered lower Iraq on at least seven occasions: the Abbasid Revolution of 750, the civil war between Harun al-Rashid's sons al-Amin and al-Ma'mun following his death in 809, the takeover of the Abbasid capital of Baghdad by the Buyids in 945, the eviction of the Buyids from Baghdad by the Seljuq sultan Tughril Beg in 1055, the Mongol invasion commanded by Genghiz IChan's grandson Hulagu in 1258, the invasion of Timur (Tamerlane) in 1401 and the annexation to the newly rising Safavid Empire in 1508. On three of these occasions, Tughril Beg, Hulagu and Timur, the conquerors came from Central Asia and reached Iraq only after taking control of northern Iran. In these instances, the ambition of the invaders was without limit, and they pressed on into Syria and Anatolia.

If these historical instances testify to a continuation of Iran's geographic vulnerability from the east and protection from the west, in other ways, the Islamic centuries saw significant changes. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Iran experienced an economic boom that resulted in the construction of major cities in different parts of the plateau. The engine behind this boom appears to have been a mammoth expansion of cotton farming and a concomitant growth in textile manufacturing and export. (7) For the first time in history, the Iranian plateau region acquired a significant export industry other than military manpower. Transit trade across the Silk Road continued, but its share in Iran's economic wellbeing diminished. Henceforward, the Silk Road trade would be most important under rulers of Central Asian nomadic origin, like the Seljuqs, the Mongol II-khans (Hulagu's descendants) and the Timurids (Tamerlane's descendants). The Safavid Empire of the 16th and 17th centuries relied economically on domestic production of silk just as the pre-Seljuq principalities that gained power with the decline of the Abbasid caliphate in the late 9th century relied on cotton.

Great cities like Shiraz, Isfahan, Rayy and Nishapur made Iran a land of great cultural achievement during the cotton boom years that ended around 1100. Under the Safavids, Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Ardabil, Qazvin, Qom and Mashhad came to form a second cluster of prosperous and culturally productive urban centers. None of these centers, from either the first group or the second, ever fell to an invader from Iraq. The Safavid capital of Isfahan, however, was sacked by a raiding party from Afghanistan in 1722, effectively bringing the empire to an end.


The relevance of these historical observations for present day calculations can be summarized under three headings:

1. Iran and the East

Iran's future prospects hinge less on intervention in the Arab world or the Persian Gulf than on exploiting economic opportunities to the east. President Ahmadinejad's participation as an observer in the 15 June 2006 summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was probably more significant than his highly publicized talk at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York three months later. The completion last year of an oil pipeline across Kazakhstan to the Chinese frontier points to a future in which China will increasingly become a key player in the politics and economies of the old Silk Road countries. Finding a way to connect to this emerging reality to the northeast has much more to offer Iran than does confrontation in the Persian Gulf.

As for the northeast historically being the direction of peril, American airbase rights in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, all reportedly linked to supporting operations in Afghanistan, reinforce a fear of being threatened from the east that may be playing a role in justifying a covert nuclear weapons program.

2. Iran and the West

Iran has so little to gain from pressing the Palestinian cause vis-a-vis Israel that it is hard to understand the virulent paranoia that President Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli remarks have provoked. After decades of Arab rulers and opinion leaders denying Israel's legitimacy, raising questions about the Holocaust and disparaging Jews, the idea that a non-Arab country that is geographically distant and has no recent history of anti-Semitism represents an unprecedented threat lacks rational credibility. To be sure, Iran may well be on the road to becoming a nuclear power; but no rational calculus can explain why any Iranian leadership would launch two to three nuclear-tipped missiles at Israel, hoping against hope that at least one is not defective or shot down by an anti-missile battery, when there is near certainty that an Israeli retaliatory strike would remove Iran as a political actor in the region for at least a generation.

Similarly, Iran has little to gain in intimidating the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf. Iran has enough oil and gas of its own not to be tempted to grab more, particularly in view of the endless problems the Iranian armed forces would have in attacking and holding these desert kingdoms.

As for the looming danger of the Shia crescent, it is hard to see what point would be achieved by firming up links between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Sunni horror at the prospect of Shia citizens playing a role in governance proportional to their share of the population reflects deep religious prejudice, but in fact, Sunnis and Shias have cohabited relatively peacefully as religious communities for the last several centuries. To foment in the Arab world the sort of communal bloodletting that Shias have endured in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and are now facing in Iraq, requires a stronger rationale than simply discomfiting Israelis, Americans and Sunnis. The potential political aligmnent denoted by the term "Shia crescent" leads to no gains for Shiism as a religious faith, only to death by sectarian violence for innocent believers.

In all three of these instances, we hear at least an echo of ancient Greek catastrophizing about Persian tyranny. No Iranian leader, not even the quirky Ahmadinejad, has said that he wants to nuke Israel, monopolize OPEC or achieve the religious triumph of Shiism. But aren't these the sorts of thing that Iranians do? Just because they're Iranians? The correct answer to this question is no.

3. Iran and Iraq

There is no question that Iran has an interest in Iraq. It is not only a neighboring country with great petroleum reserves. The majority of its population share not only Iran's Shia faith but also a reverence for senior clerics who are often of Iranian family background. Thus, it is unimaginable that Iran would not seek close relations with any Iraqi government based on proportional representation of Iraq's population. Political domination, however, is another matter. The likelihood of such domination stimulating Arab enmity, both within Iraq and among its neighbors, is so great that the advantages of becoming Iraq's overlord would surely outweigh the benefits.

Insofar as these appraisals of current events are based on a long-term view of Iranian history, they suffer from the age-old question of whether anyone ever learns anything useful from history. I would not essay to answer that question in either the affirmative or the negative, but as the train inched ever closer to Turkmenistan in 1996, I could not help but reflect upon the "reopening" of the Silk Road as a landmark event, albeit one that was destined to be all but ignored in the United States. Regardless of what happens in Iraq, and in the saber-rattling confrontation with the United States and Israel, sooner or later, Iran will turn again to the east in quest of its destiny.


(1) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. John Sibree (New York: American Home Library Company, 1902), 339.

(2) Victor Davis Hanson, "A Stillborn West? Themistocles at Salamis, 480 BC," in Unmaking the West: "What-If?" Scenarios that Rewrite World History, eds. Philip E. Tetlock et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 47.

(3) Ibid., 50-51.

(4) Ibid., 54-55.

(5) Ibid., 57.

(6) George Gordon Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib," in English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald, ed. Charles W. Elliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909-1914),, 2001.

(7) Richard W. Bulliet, Cotton and Climate in Early Islamic Iran (New York: Center for Iranian Studies, forthcoming).
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Title Annotation:CAPSTONE ESSAY
Author:Bulliet, Richard W.
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Previous Article:Editors foreword.
Next Article:Iranian women's status and struggles since 1979.

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